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Syrian ‘Gravedigger’ testifies in the US Congress

An anonymous Syrian known simply as “The Gravedigger” testified from Europe via the Internet before a US congressional hearing on Tuesday (April 18) urging committee members to support the strengthening of sanctions against the Assad regime and the application of pressure as a deterrent for regional Arab countries that have been making moves to normalize diplomatic relations with the government in Syria.

“The Gravegigger” speaking before a US congressional hearing on Tuesday (April 18, 2023); Credit: Syrian Emergency Task Force Twitter Account

“The Syrian people look to the United States to ensure that there are consequences for those who normalize with the criminal regime,” the witness said during his testimony.

The hearing was held as part of an ongoing investigation into war crimes in Syria and came in the wake of a series of visits to regional capitals by the Syrian foreign minister as well as visits by Assad to Oman and the UAE that have dismayed Syrian activists even though the regime does not appear to have received any benefits from any of these meetings so far.

One of Assad’s eventual goals for normalization is to elicit funding for rebuilding the country he is responsible for destroying. The UN has estimated the cost of reconstruction to be in the 250-billion-dollar range but none of the oil-rich countries making moves to re-establish relations with the regime appear to be willing to bankroll the effort.

“Every week, twice a week, three trailer trucks are rock packed with 300 to 600 bodies of victims of torture and starvation and execution from military hospitals and intelligence branches around Damascus”

“The Gravedigger”

During his testimony “The Gravedigger” told US lawmakers that he had been forced by Syrian authorities to dig graves for detainees that had died while being surreptitiously held in the regime’s notorious prisons.

“I was not prepared for the horror of my new duties. Every week, twice a week, three trailer trucks are rock packed with 300 to 600 bodies of victims of torture and starvation and execution from military hospitals and intelligence branches around Damascus,” he said.

“Twice a week we received three to four pickup trucks with 30 to 40 bodies, still warm, of civilians that had been executed in Sednaya prison. After seven years of bearing witness to these atrocities, I was able to escape Syria and follow my family to Europe.”

In March, several members of Congress spoke at an event held at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum titled “Ordinary Civilians, Extraordinary Acts: Syrian Responses to Mass Atrocities.”

The event, hosted by the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, featured “Syrian civil society leaders who are spearheading the charge to protect civilians and hold perpetrators of mass atrocities accountable.”

“under NO circumstances, should the United States wink or nod or even remotely entertain a meeting with another government that seeks to normalize diplomatic relations with Syria!”

Representative French Hill

Representative French Hill of Arkansas stated: “We’re here today to say that we’re not in any way, shape or form forgetting about Syria.” Hill, who has been working closely with the Syria Emergency Task Force, assured attendees that the US Congress is determined to seek justice and accountability for Syria.

“Like the Senate, the House on a bipartisan basis is fully committed […] and not only the Caesar sanctions should be pushed but under no circumstances, under NO circumstances, should the United States wink or nod or even remotely entertain a meeting with another government that seeks to normalize diplomatic relations with Syria! That’s a catastrophic mistake and not one that will have any support on Capitol Hill.”

The US State Department’s Special Envoy to Syria, Ethan Goldrich, said: “We firmly believe that stability in Syria can only be achieved by a political process that represents the will of all Syrians. That process must include justice and accountability which are essential to securing a just and enduring peace.”

“Not only do we support the prosecution of perpetrators in third countries like we’ve seen in Germany, France, and Sweden under the principle of universal jurisdiction, but we have made progress towards being able to prosecute these crimes in the United States,” Goldrich added.

prosecution for war crimes needs to go beyond the prosecution of individuals and extend to those who are ultimately responsible such as the Assad regime

Stephen Rapp

To that end, the US Congress passed the Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act on December 22, 2022. The Act, which was signed by President Biden, enables the prosecution of war criminals in the United States regardless of the offender’s, or the victim’s, nationalities.

Taking the principle of universal jurisdiction even further, Stephen Rapp, an American lawyer, and former US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues told those at the event that prosecution for war crimes needs to go beyond the prosecution of individuals and extend to those who are ultimately responsible such as the Assad regime.

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